KAHULUI - As the Baldwin High School girls soccer team warmed up for practice Monday at Keopuolani Park, there was a sense of focus, of a mission waiting to be accomplished.
The Bears are led by 10 seniors and they routinely do their stretching and running to prepare for practice before coaches arrive. After missing the state tournament as freshmen, this group of seniors has won three Maui Interscholastic League titles in a row, rolling up a 39-1-2 league record in the process.
On Thursday, carrying the No. 3 seed at the Outrigger Hotels and Resorts Girls Division I State Championship, the Bears will be out to finish what they started four years ago.
"We were actually just talking about it while we were stretching," senior Amber-Lei Madriaga said. "We talked, like, how it is so exciting and how we can tell that all of us want it so badly. We know we can do it, we know we have the potential and our coaches can see the potential, so that makes it a lot better."
Coach Kawika Keator said this may be his best team since his 2000, 2001 and 2002 squads won two state titles and finished second in another. He has coached five state final four teams in his 13 seasons and this was his ninth MIL crown.
"This team is definitely ready, we thought we were ready last year," Keator said. "But we faced Iolani and we didn't come out ready to play last year, but this year it looks like they are focused and ready to play. They are all excited and it is kind of a revenge thing, too."
After advancing to the state semifinals in 2010, the Bears were beaten by Iolani 2-0 in the quarterfinals last year before settling for a tie for fifth place. Keator expects to see the Interscholastic League of Honolulu runner-up Raiders again. For that to happen, Iolani must beat Aiea today at the Waipio Peninsula Soccer Complex.
Also today, MIL D-I runner-up Kamehameha Maui plays Kaiser, and MIL D-II champion Seabury Hall faces Kapaa. All of today's matches are at 3 p.m.
"Totally, definitely, I asked them today, 'So, how do you feel about playing Iolani?' and then a couple of them said, 'Yeah, we're psyched, we want to pound them,' " Keator said with a chuckle. "Iolani plays a lot like Kamehameha Maui, with three defenders and five midfielders, so it is good that we actually faced somebody that plays their style. We are going to be ready. We're ready."
Assistant coaches Tia Medeiros, Koren Takeyama and Taryn Apo all have state title and college experience. Baldwin is still the only non-Oahu team to ever play in a state D-I title game.
"Those three always tell them the stories, we show them the video of the state games," Keator said. "I hope it motivates them. It would motivate me. Most of these girls have been starting since they were sophomores, a lot of them from freshmen. I hope we are mentally prepared, physically we are all ready, 100 percent healthy.
"It is just a mental thing, when they hear 'ILH,' I don't know, they just have this psych out. I hope this year, their last year, they know they just have to not even think about it and just go hard. If they play the way that they can, they can beat anybody. To win the championship you have to play the best and we are going to play the best. Let's just do it."
Three players on this team plan to play in college - Madriaga at Lenoir-Rhyne University, Amanda Jorgensen at Colorado State-Pueblo, and Brianna Gaddis at Hawaii Pacific.
First, there is work to do this week.
"I have been thinking about this since my freshman year," Jorgensen said. "Even though we didn't even go to states, that is all I wanted to do senior year. I pictured us being there and now we are there."
* Robert Collias is at firstname.lastname@example.org